War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t a bad film, but I left the theater feeling a tad underwhelmed.

The trouble with the franchise is, the buried themes it seems to want to explore have been done already in other sci-fi blockbuster franchises, most notably the X-Men.  Which makes it a problem because, once you take away the commentary on real life, what is left is mainly motion capture, CGI and stuff going bang.

The latter two, I’m  heartily sick of at this point. I’m sure D. W. Griffith thought he was simplifying matters when he said, “What do filmgoers want? A girl and a gun.” I just wish he had specified an upper bound on the guns as well. (We could do with more women, though, preferably in roles of substance.)

The motion capture, on that other hand, is still somewhat fascinating. I spent the entire movie watching Caesar and imagining what Andy Serkis’ actual facial expressions would’ve been. I wonder if he might be one of the great underrated actors of our time.

In its quieter moments, the film is not without its little pleasures. Steve Zahn plays a talking ape who has managed to survive alone in the wilderness, and while much of his role is written for laughs, his first line in the film is so tinged with pathos that I found myself profoundly moved.

The other thing that worked for me was the passing references to older films and books. The story, for instance,  is about Caesar’s mission into human territory to avenge the death of his family at the hands of the insane Colonel I-don’t-think-his-name-is-mentioned. Woody Harrelson even has a monologue that reminds one a bit of Col Stryker in the X-Men, but more immediately evokes Col Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Harrelson’s performance is pitched somewhere in between these two characters –  you see traces of Marlon Brando’s resigned tone as well as Brian Cox’s mania. (On a side note, any are all these guys colonels? Is there a promotion ceiling for bad guys in the military?) I was also reminded, at various points, of Cool Hand Luke, Exodus (the old testament book, not the Leon Uris one) and a few others.

Now, I am not sure how much of this was intentional. And I like it when films do these things, but my first instinct was to end this post with a line to the effect that, maybe Planet of the Apes was an appropriate title after all. But then, someone would wonder why I was being so snarky, and I would defend myself saying that I didn’t mean for it to sound snarky…

What we’d have is… a failure to communicate.

Vikram Vedha

While I was watching Vikram Vedha, the author whose work kept coming to mind was Ed McBain.

The film is structurally interesting — the cop and the gangster are cast as Vikramadityan and the Vedalam, and the latter narrates his story to the former as a series of moral conundrums. Each story peels off a later from the story in the foreground. It’s a lovely conceit, so obviously I kept wondering: did the structure come first, or did the story come first? The last time I went through this was when I read McBain’s The House that Jack Built — a murder mystery is told through a series of chapters named after lines of the poem the novel is named for, and the line itself summarizes the chapter.

The other McBain memory came from a novel where a cop is trying to solve a murder and boils it down to a set of people who were staying in the same lodge — I think it was called Killer’s Payoff. Agatha Christie fans might be reminded of a different one, for similar reasons.

Aside: None of the aforementioned observations have anything to do with what I thought of the film, of course. But a film that reminds of Ed McBain gets a few brownie points right there.

I don’t know if I’ve made it sound like the film is an intense cerebral exercise that values structure over content. But make no mistake, this is a wonderfully entertaining motion picture. It has its faults (an unnecessary song sequence, uneven depth of characterization, implausible deductive reasoning around the reconstruction of a crime at the end), but these did not detract from my enjoyment in any way. Director-writers Pushkar and Gayathri clearly know what they’re doing, and are aided by a very competent cast and crew. 

Much of the fun, though, comes from Vijay Sethupathi’s performance. I watched the film in a multiplex in Bangalore, and when his feet first appeared in the frame as he swaggered in, the hall erupted in cheers, and with good reason. The man has, bit by bit, evolved into a leading man with incredible screen presence, talent to burn, and the ability and inclination to work across genres. It also helps that the script is written to focus on him more than on the cop –  I suppose, in a storytelling medium, the storyteller is, in fact, king. 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum translates, I think, to The Evidence and the Eyewitness, which suggests that this is a film about crime. Which in a way it is, since the central incident that drives the story is the theft of a gold chain on a bus. Is the victim, who was the only eyewitness, to be believed? Or was she herself deceived? The policemen investigating the case suggest a plausible alternative version at one point. 

But here’s a different reading of the same phrase. The word eyewitness indicates an observer, and the word evidence indicates specific observations that support the eyewitness’ account of an incident. Throughout the film, you see eyewitnesses and evidence, and how reality might or might not match their account.

A man sees a woman buying a pregnancy test. Is it for her? There is a conversation between the woman, her husband and the policemen about her recounting of the events in the bus, and the story changes during the conversation in order to fit a certain agenda. The central piece of evidence – the gold chain – itself becomes a mutable quantity at point. There are conversations with and between bystanders that indicate their own perception of things. 

I am  making it seem like this film is a Rashomon-esque meditation on the nature of truth and our perception of it (there is, after all, a husband and a wife on a journey, and a thief). But that would be doing both films a disservice.

At a meta level, think of this film itself as an eyewitness account,and what a wondrous thing it is! When we recount an incident to someone, we focus on what happened, and whatever else was on the periphery of our awareness does not make it into the narrative. (This review itself, for instance, has just focused on one aspect of the film, and unfortunately for you, dear reader, that one thing isn’t the plot.) Films are the same way, more often than not. But not this one. There is so much detail, so much texture here, that one walks out feeling like one had inhabited this world for a while and not just seen it on screen. 

Is all of this detail relevant? That depends, I suppose, on whether you are think of a film as a way of telling a story, or a story as an excuse to make a film. 

Talking heads

Baradwaj Rangan’s series of interactions with contemporary Thamizh directors on Film Companion reminds me of nothing so much as Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. When Al Pacino introduced Lumet as he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, he said, “The director directs.” But what does that entail, exactly? This is the question that drives the book, as also this series.

This similarity is most evident in his three part long conversation with Mani Ratnam, which goes into much depth about what instructions he gives to his cast and crew, and what he expects in return. Thanks to the fact that these two people have had a whole book’s worth of conversations prior to this one, there is a level of comfort that makes this one riveting. Irrespective of your opinion of Mani Ratnam’s films, here is a peek into a maker’s thought process, and it’s fascinating how much is revealed.

The two part conversation with Mysskin doesn’t have the same fluency, but that director’s clarity of vision is impossible to miss. Here is a director with such a distinct style that one is naturally inclined to wonder how his mind works. Mysskin doesn’t disappoint.

It also makes for a study in contrasting approaches. For instance, Mani Ratnam’s instructions to Rajeev Menon for a particular scene in Bombay are elliptic bordering on cryptic. Yet you can see how it translates to a certain approach to shooting the scene. Mysskin, on the other hand, does all but specify how the DoP should hold the camera when he writes a script.

Some of the episodes have had a lot more to do with other aspects on the periphery of filmmaking. The one with Vetrimaran, for instance, has to do with the mechanics of promoting a film at the Oscars. The one with Balaji Mohan has to do with the whys and wherefores of making a web series.

I wonder if Baradwaj Rangan’s training as an engineer has had anything to do with how these conversations have unfolded. He is anything but prosaic in his writing (which other critic would think of using a phrase like lysergic rainbow?), but his approach here is akin to that of someone taking apart a gadget to see how it works. From what I could discern, the makers have been willing to oblige. You don’t find yourself listening to a high-concept metaphorical exchange about “the creative process”.

Aside: The language has a big part to play in this — most of these directors are very fluent in English, so the content is not limited by their expressive power. I do hope that the series eventually expands to cover directors who would prefer to have this conversation in their mother tongue, maybe with a smattering of English thrown in. I am sure they have as much to say.

I also wonder if the opportunity to peek behind the curtain robs us of our ability to immerse ourselves in a film. The next time I watch a Mysskin film, would I be more conscious of where the camera is moving? (To be fair, I have wondered about this even with regard to my own habit of blogging about the movies.) Honestly, I am not sure. I suppose in a day and age where live-tweeting a review is a thing, this isn’t the biggest threat to the viewer’s attention that one needs to worry about.

Or maybe our perception of cinema is as much about its making as it is about the end product.  A viewer today is highly unlikely to watch Citizen Kane without having heard about it first, but that foreknowledge does not rob the film of its power. In fact, I think it enhances our appreciation of it. When I watch The Third Man, the knowledge that it was shot in the bombed out streets of Vienna gives the film an additional charge.

This is not to say that you should view cinema the same way. If you’re the kind of person who prefers not to know how panchamritam is made, then this is not for you. I for one hope that these people keep talking.

Wonder Woman

Much has been written about the fact that this is a film about a female superhero helmed by a woman, and about how this has brought a unique set of sensibilities to the genre. I have nothing further to contribute in this regard. I agree with the assessment in general, and I agree that it is a wonderful thing. (But since my favourite superhero movie still happens to be M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, you will forgive me if I don’t go into raptures about yet another movie that involves a lot of stuff going bang.)

That having been said, here are a few things I noticed:

There is obviously a feminist angle to the whole plot (how many really famous superheroines can you think of?), but what makes this one interesting to me is that this idea is presented through a different trope: fish-out-of-water. To Diana, this world, and its notion that the woman’s place is in the background, is simply alien. Her thrill at seeng babies and eating ice cream is endearing (Gal Gadot nails these portions). When she walks into a meeting where a bunch of old men are deliberating the armistice, her expression conveys that she cannot think of any conceivable reason why she shouldn’t be there. It’s like watching someone who would break the glass ceiling simply because, well, it was glass and she didn’t see it. (As a result, though, the line about slavery she tells Steve’s secretary Linda, funny as it is, feels out of place.)

The relationship between Diana and Steve is developed through gentle humour for the most part. There are moments when Diana’s naivete about the world, and about relationships between men and women, set things up for broad humour, and the film wisely sidesteps the obvious. The laughter comes from what isn’t said. (I was reminded of Bill Murray’s ageing comedian in Lost in Translation.) Chris Pine really excels in these scenes.

The scenes where Diana first encounters the horrors of World War I are a big misfire. Maybe this has to do with the fact that enough movies have laid bare the horrors of war (the long opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind). I can see the filmmaker’s dilemma — if the scenes work only at a superficial level, they feel fake, and if they work too well, they end up being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film — but there you have it.

Speaking of people dealing with wars, what works well is the performance of the two older supporting actors playing the Amazons Antiope and Hippolyta. Robin Wright’s lean face conveys such fierceness of expression that one wonders if she would’ve even been considered for the part, had she not done House of Cards before this. Her expressions provide a nice counterpoint to Connie Nielsen’s, which project a certain weariness of spirit (one imagines that this is the aged queen that her character in Gladiator might have grown to become). Those two by themselves provide a nice little commentary about living with the memories of an old war.

There are some interesting aspects to the visual strategy in the film. The backstory narrated by Hippolyta is pictured like it was a motion poster painted by Caravaggio. (I know that the art purists among you will throw up upon hearing this description, but hey, I couldn’t find a better analogy for it. Besides, which art purist reads my blog anyway?) Similarly, the fight sequences involve slow motion at crucial moments, like for instance when Wonder Woman is leaping into the air while attacking someone.

Why is this important? In both cases, the objective of adopting this strategy is to translate onto film, the way in which people think of these stories. When people hear about Greek myth, their internal frame of reference is Renaissance painting, because that is the best known depiction of these stories. When people think of action sequences involving comic book heroines, their internal frame of reference is comic book panels frozen in mid-action. The approach shows an active intelligence at work, and that is gratifying.

On the whole, I’m happy this film got made. It could’ve been better, but it does enough right to be worth a watch. Sort of like how a certain Diana, Princess of Themyscira, feels about mankind, I guess.


In Memoriam: Professor Asim Kumar Pal

Back in the last millenium, when I was still figuring out whom I wanted to work under for my doctoral thesis, I asked my friend and mentor Sridev for advice. I was leaning towards working with his advisor, Professor Asim Kumar Pal, so I figured he’d be able to tell me what the experience was like. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I remember two things most vividly. The first was that he had no ego; you could have a heated argument with him on a technical matter, and he wouldn’t expect you to hold back simply because he was the professor and you were the student. He would, in fact, expect it. (He would win the argument, usually, but that’s okay.) The second was that Prof. Pal’s unit of measurement was work, not time. If I took a decade to finish the quantum of work he deemed acceptable for a dissertation, well, then I took a decade. He wasn’t going to let me off with five years worth of work simply because it was time to submit something. I listened carefully, nodded, and then went ahead with my plans.

Was it the misplaced confidence that I would breeze through my work in a couple of years? Maybe, but I’d like to think that it was because, when Sridev told me this, it wasn’t his words I heard, but the words from a book that influenced me profoundly as a high schooler: Jonathan Livingston Seagull. There is a line in that book that says, “Those who abandon perfection for the sake of speed go nowhere, slowly. Those who abandon speed for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly.”

The funny thing is, Prof. Pal said something similar to me a year later. I had to present a research paper to my faculty group, and perhaps the nicest way to describe the experience was that it was a disaster. I had started off by putting a fairly complex equation on the board without building up to it, and had spent the next couple of hours trying to explain it to an increasingly annoyed group of professors. Worst of all, that equation was only the first of many in the paper. By the time I was done, I was mentally cataloguing the list of belongings in my room that I would have to pack before leaving the institute.

Prof. Pal sat me down and said, “Ramsu, if you have to go fast, you have to go slow.” I responded with the first thing that came to my mind: “I feel like I am in the middle of a bad kung-fu movie, and am getting advice that I don’t understand.” Unfazed by my outburst, he explained to me that, if I had spent the first half hour or even the first hour laying out the fundamental concepts that led to that equation, and convinced the audience about the intuition behind the theory, they would’ve taken my word on the math. To this day, when I have to teach something, I go slow on the concepts and the intuition, and then zip through the math.

He was my elder gull. He taught me how to fly.

How to learn.

How to teach.

How to do research.

How to find joy, not in answering a question but in asking it in the first place, for the answer to any research question is complete only when accompanied by the newer set of questions it spawns.

How to ask why before asking how.

How to be a student and never stop being one.

I guess the mundane way of putting it is that Professor Asim Kumar Pal passed away today. The obvious follow up would include details of how he died, and how old he was. But remember what I told you earlier: his unit of measurement was work, not time. And by that metric, he has lived, and continues to live several lifetimes.

He lives through us, his students, his creations.

Asim is a Bengali name that means unlimited. I think his parents were onto something.

Hidden Figures: Per aspera ad astra!

A black woman in a plaid dress walks into a room full of white men in starched white shirts. She is Katherine Goble, a child prodigy who has been assigned to the Space Task Group at NASA owing to her skills at analytic geometry. In an ideal world, the first of these two sentences would be entirely irrelevant. But this is Virginia in the 1960s, so there you have it.

A bathroom break takes forty minutes because Katherine has to run ten blocks to a building that has a bathroom for colored women. When she helps herself to a mug of coffee from the coffee machine, there is a scandalized hush around the room. The next day, there is a separate coffee machine labeled colored kept on the same table. (When you see the two coffee machines, you realize why the term separate is not the same thing as equal.) Her immediate supervisor treats her with barely veiled contempt. Her name is redacted from every report she authors.

And yet, she is not cowed down. When the situation demands it, she speaks up. She goes around her immediate boss if need be, to ask for what she wants. She has a sympathetic boss-figure who recognizes her talent and has no time for petty nonsense, but the film is smart enough not to make it his crusade (one slightly shlocky scene involving bathroom signage notwithstanding).

Katherine is one of three women this film is about. There’s Mary Jackson, who needs to convince the court to desegregate night classes at a local high school so that she can eventually apply for an engineer trainee program (her conversation with the judge is a delight to watch). Then there’s Dorothy Vaughan, who supervises — in function, but not in title or pay — a group of computers, back when the term referred to people who did calculations by hand and calculating machines. Math doesn’t care about segregation, but organizations do, so African-American women computers had a separate division for themselves. (It is their bathroom that Katherine has to run all the way across the NASA compound to use.) Then NASA purchases an IBM mainframe machine. And when it does, Dorothy is among the first to realize what this represents, teaching herself and her subordinates FORTRAN so that they could write programs on the machine.

That these women face down, and surmount some pretty heavy odds is amazing in and as of itself. (In some cases, the opposition comes from white women as well, as in the case of Dorothy’s supervisor Vivian, with whom a late exchange about being treated equally is brief but incredibly loaded.) The beauty of this film is, it gives us a portrait of these vibrant, competent women who aren’t simply reduced to their struggle against a system that undervalues them at every turn. They lead full lives. You wonder if they wear their opposition down by sheer grace and force of will.

The incredible thing is how much wit and charm there is in the writing. The film opens with a shot of a car stranded on the road, with our three heroines in car. Well, Dorothy is underneath it, trying to fix it. A cop car pulls up. Our minds have been so conditioned by recent news items and old stories that we can feel ourselves clenching. But the women pull out their IDs and the surprised cop gives them an escort all the way to their workplace. “Three Negro women chasing a cop car on a highway in 1961. Now that’s a God ordained miracle,” exclaims Mary, the wiseass. The laugh comes so naturally, so explosively, you realize later that it’s because you’ve been holding your breath until then.

There is a moment late in Hidden Figures when Dorothy looks back at an empty room, on top of which is a signboard that says Colored Computers. Her facial features rearrange themselves into an ever-so-dismissive gesture that only an actress like Octavia Spencer can manage so wonderfully. The unspoken conversation between her and that signboard seems to be:

You can’t do that! <<That being, well, just about everything>>

Oh yeah? And who’s gonna stop me?